Five tips for improving disability inclusion at work from Australia’s most-decorated Paralympian Ell

Ellie Cole knows what it’s like to be nervous before taking a plunge.

As Australia’s most decorated Paralympian and now-retired swimmer, she’s pursuing her passion for better inclusion for people living with injury, illness, and disability.

Through her work as APM’s Ambassador, Ellie is helping educate businesses on simple changes which make their workplace more welcoming and accessible. When it comes to diving into workplace accommodations, her advice is not to overthink it.

“Starting is actually the most important thing, I think,” Ellie says. “Including everyone – it’s actually a lot easier than you think.”

Bridging the employment gap

Approximately 17% of Australia’s population live with disability – which is roughly 4.4 million people.

When it comes to employment and opportunities, there is a distinct gap to bridge for workplaces.

“It’s more than just about how physically accessible your workplace is,” Ellie said.

Working aged people (15-64) living with disability are roughly half as likely (48%) to be employed than people without disability (80%), the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has found.

“A lot of us have to look internally at what our values, attitudes and our behaviours look like, how we approach and use language around people with disabilities,” Ellie added.

“It’s also about how you employ people, how people can access your business and the experience of your employees themselves.“

In APM’s own annual study into Australian businesses, the 2023 Disability Diversity and Inclusivity Index, 66% of employers said they recognised direct workplace benefits of employing people with a disability, up from 65% in 2022.

Put simply, employing people with disability is good for business. Employing with diversity in mind, opening your recruitment processes to become more accessible to people with disability is opening your business to better culture, diversity, brand recognition, productivity, and customer base.

Five tips from Ellie Cole

Challenging misconceptions and taking the next step on our inclusion journey will be challenging, but worthwhile. Ellie shares five of her tips to help us make the all-important start:

1. Starting is the most important thing

Making a start can feel challenging because you want to get it right. In contrast to what you might think, this can hold you back from making a start.

There is support available through local employment service providers and disability organisations to get the process started.

Once you start, you may find further organic changes can happen soon after you do.

2. Look into workplace modifications

One of the big misconceptions when you hire someone with a disability is that workplace modifications will be costly.

This purported high cost prevents many businesses from making reasonable accommodations.

This means they miss out on dedicated subsidies and further resources for making simple and cost-effective changes.

3. Communicate with courtesy

There’s no specific way to communicate with a person or colleague who has a disability.

All you have to do is communicate with the same courtesy and respect you would show anyone else.

Considering that one in five Australians live with a recognised disability, it’s likely that you have already worked with someone who lives with a disability already and not realised it.

4. Challenge your unconscious bias with curiosity

Sometimes there are barriers we may not be aware of, these can come from a deep-rooted place in our words, behaviours, and attitudes.

Reflecting with curiosity on why we might do, say, or think certain things regarding disability is the first step to realising our unconscious biases.

This helps us become inclusive in more innovative and creative ways.

5. Make your workplace more accessible

Disability doesn’t come in a single shape or size, so your approach for hiring a person with disability will vary each time.

This goes beyond the physical work environment, too - consider reviewing your workplace policies and procedures and if your staff have any awareness of disability or disability training.

You can ease the learning curve by asking curious questions and be eager to learn in order to make your workplace as accommodating as it can possibly be.